A tram rumbles past stores advertising jeans, sunglasses, opals, and other Australian souvenirs. Beyond the promenade, some people wander out onto the white-sand beach. A few determined surfers, clad neck-to-ankle in neon green and black wet suits, bob in the water next to Glenelg’s jetty, which stretches out into the Gulf of St. Vincent.
Just north of the promenade in this wealthy suburb of Adelaide sits the Glenelg Community Centre, a beachy blue building laying low beneath a row of towering pine trees. A handwritten sign out front welcomes people to Church Glenelg’s evening service.
“People come here from all around Adelaide to partake in the culture, so we thought, ‘Man, we want to be here’,” says Don Reddin, the church’s pastor. “There’s a great lack of any Kingdom light here…so we really came to see some Kingdom light in this critical part of Adelaide.”
Church Glenelg is a young congregation — the average age is only 23 — and this is striking in a town where the few existing churches have an average age of 65 or greater.
“When we started the church, we thought, ‘Man, we don’t want to be one of these church plants that just moves the furniture in the Kingdom. We want to be strongly evangelical, but evangelistic as well’,” Reddin explains. “And so we prayed hard that people would come into the Kingdom, that people who hadn’t been to church in a long time would come back, that people who grew up in Christian homes but never made any kind of commitment or never really knew God would come to know Him, and we’ve seen that happen a lot since we started our launch six months ago.”
As a result of the strong culture of evangelism in Church Glenelg, they have seen people become Christian and invite friends who become Christian, who then invite their friends who also become Christian.
“We’re three and four layers deep of people in terms of social or friendship connections coming to know Jesus here,” Reddin says.
In just six months, Church Glenelg has already filled the space they are renting at the community center.
TEAM missionary Ray Williams, who mentored Reddin, is not surprised by the enthusiasm of these young adults. He describes three distinct generations in Australia in regards to religious experience: those age 55 and older, who generally have a church background but tend to stay in their historic comfort zone; those age 35 to 55, who frequently are antagonistic and very resistant to the gospel; and those age 30 and under.
“What really excites me,” Williams says, “is the fact that the under-30s have a much greater openness to the gospel than any other group. I think if we can reach them and train them and turn them loose to do it, there’s no limit to what God could use them to do here in Australia and around the world.”
Adelaide, the capital of the state of South Australia, is known as the “City of Churches.” Unlike the rest of Australia, South Australia did not begin as a penal colony, but was instead started by early European settlers who brought their religion with them and peppered the city with elegant churches. Today, however, most of these church buildings are being used for other purposes, such as night clubs, wine bars, doctors' offices, mortgage and loan offices, and bridal boutiques.
Australian society has changed over the past century, and the church has lost much of its influence. Australia’s economy and the prospects of her people are booming, and there is little sense of the need for a savior. For churches that remain, their average age of attendees is significantly older than the average age of the population as a whole. Recent census reports indicate the fastest growing belief system in Australia is “no religion.” Christianity is decreasing both statistically and numerically: over the last 20 years, Australia has lost on average one church per week.
Few doubt that the Christian church in Australia is struggling, but as Church Glenelg demonstrates, there is hope for the future.
“In Adelaide, there has been — not in the last probably 50 years — not a strong culture of church planting,” Reddin says. “But it’s just come about in the last few years, where a number of my friends and contemporaries have planted churches…and a couple [have gone] into old churches with this vision of reviving those older churches with a church plant model of leadership, as well.”
Williams adds, “In the last 10 to 15 years, there’s been an increasing awareness of the need to intentionally start churches because statistically the church in Australia is in significant trouble, in terms of the impact we’re having in the broader population.”
Though Australian churches historically have been very denominational, they are no longer as territorial as they used to be. There is a growing sense of cooperation among the different groups.
One of Australia’s biggest cooperative efforts is Geneva Push, a network of churches and denominations dedicated to promoting church planting and equipping church planters. It was spearheaded by the Sydney Anglicans, an evangelical diocese of the Anglican Church. The group also includes Baptists from the state of Victoria and Presbyterians from the state of Queensland. Williams is working with Geneva Push and their efforts to start a church planting movement in South Australia.
The group faces several challenges. To start, most Australian churches do not have a tradition of — and may not even see the need for — church planting. Even if they do understand its importance, few churches have the knowledge or financial and personnel resources to devote to it.
Reverend Paul Harrington works with Geneva Push and is rector of Holy Trinity, an Anglican church in the heart of Adelaide and the oldest church in the city, established in 1836. In the past 12 years, Holy Trinity has planted five churches.
Harrington understands the challenges and limitations churches face when it comes to church planting.
“A lot of people are curious to know what we’re doing with the church planting,” he says, “so there doesn’t seem to be a lot of people who have done the sort of thing we’re doing with church planting here — which is a bit sad, really, because we haven’t done that much of it. We’re still working it out. We’re in early stages. We feel there’s so much more to do than what we’ve done. As a leadership team, what we’re praying about is that God might help us plant 20 more churches in the next 10 years.”
Holy Trinity uses a church planting strategy where 50 to 100 people are sent out at a time to plant a church. By doing this, they can continue evangelizing at the city church and keep growing at that location.
“This center has, in its current configuration...a capacity of maybe 900 to a thousand on Sunday, and that’s about it,” Harrington says. “So we figure if we keep sending people away, it can keep growing.”
It also helps the church plant, as studies suggest church growth is difficult and slow with fewer than 15 people, but fruitful between 50 and 150 people.
Holy Trinity’s leadership began discussing a church plant nearly 20 years ago, but it took some convincing because the church had not planted in 165 years. Harrington believes if they sent out only a few families and it took six years for the plant to grow to 50 people, it would take another seven or eight years to convince people to try again. Sending out larger teams speeds up the process and also creates space in the city church for new people.
“And that’s what’s happened over the last 12 years,” he says. “We’re now bigger here in the city than what we were before we started planting 12 years ago.”
The church plants have also grown, so much so the network of Holy Trinity churches is now more than double the size it was 12 years ago.
Though Holy Trinity and some other large churches have developed successful church-planting programs, Williams worries that these programs may not be adaptable in smaller churches. The average size of an Australian church is 70 people, so most churches can’t send out a planting team of 50 people.
“We need to see some models develop that a church of 70 to 100 people can engage in and do well,” he says.
The nascent Church Glenelg may be such a model. Reddin planted the church independently — he’s not part of a denomination, and he is not supported by another church. He works full time as the program director of a local Christian radio station. And even though he has limited time and resources, Reddin is already looking ahead to their next church plant.
“I’m already starting to think...‘Where does God want us to plant next?’” he says. “People from the (Glenelg) church come from all over the southern part of Adelaide, and so we’re just starting to see geographic clumps and geographic clusters form completely organically — or, in the sovereignty of God, I should say. There are clusters starting to form where home groups are starting, and multiple home groups starting, and perhaps [they are] just the embryonic stages of a new church plant happening…That’s what I’m hoping the next six months are going to bring.”
While Church Glenelg has a growing and energetic young congregation that is excited to share their faith, it lacks experienced Christians who can disciple and lead these new believers. Reddin is hoping to find families and older adults willing to join them. In the meantime, these young Christians are taking on church leadership roles.
“Even amongst our young people,” Reddin says, “we’ve got people who are really keen on leadership and really owning the church and owning the vision and mission of what God wants us to do here. Despite their youth, they are taking on a great responsibility for the lives of other people and for the mission of God here.”
Williams works with and helps train many young church leaders. He is encouraged by them and what they mean for the future of the Australian church.
“There is just tremendous potential in the generation that’s coming,” he says.
- Written by Megan Darreth
- Photography by Robert Johnson